Saturday, November 10, 2018

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938)

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror was the third and last of the low-budget British movies made in the 1930s featuring master detective Sexton Blake.

In fact it probably qualifies as a quota quickie, quota quickies being very cheap movies that took advantage of British government legislation that forced exhibitors to show a quota of British-made movies. These movies are often unfairly despised. Some were terrible but many were good entertaining films.

Sexton Blake was a kind of pulp version of Sherlock Holmes (he even lived in Baker Street). He made his first appearance in 1893, in a story by Harry Blyth. Countless further stories followed (possibly as many as four thousand) and were published in a variety of cheap British magazines. The stories were written by many different writers (including some like John Creasey and Peter Cheyney who later became fairy well known). Blake has a youthful assistant named Tinker. The Sexton Blake stories range from very very good to very very bad.

One key difference between the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Sexton Blake stories is that the latter usually pitted the detective against one of a number of colourful diabolical criminal masterminds.

George Curzon plays Blake in this particular movie. He’s suave enough although he’s not going to convince anybody that he’s an action hero. As played by Curzon Blake has more of an air of a debonair man-about-town than Holmes, and he’s definitely much less neurotic.

The villain is played by the legendary Tod Slaughter. Slaughter was not merely in the tradition of Victorian melodrama villains. He was a real Victorian melodrama star. OK, if you want to be pedantic his career began in 1905 so he was actually an Edwardian melodrama star but he was an authentic representative of the tradition. He made a series of deliciously outrageous low-budget movies during the 30s and 40s. Tod Slaughter in full cry makes Charles Laughton seem positively restrained. Slaughter was perhaps the hammiest movie star of all time. Most of his best movies (such as Murder in the Red Barn and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) were adaptations of Victorian melodramas.

In Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror he plays diabolical criminal mastermind Michael Larron. By ordinary standards it’s an over-the-top exercise in hamminess but by Tod Slaughter standards this is a very subdued and subtle performance.

Tony Sympson plays Tinker. You might expect Tinker to be a comic relief character but he isn’t. He’s a reasonably competent and resourceful assistant.

It all starts with an attempted murder somewhere in the East. Granite Grant has a narrow escape from death, but he is grievously wounded and will be unable to keep a vital appointment with Sexton Blake in London. He sends Paul Duvall in his place. Duvall is murdered and the only clue that Blake has is a message written in cipher.

Grant was apparently on the track of the master criminal known as the Snake, believed to be the head of the dreaded organised crime gang the Black Quorum, a gang responsible for most of the really big crimes in Europe and Britain. There’s an obvious parallel here to the criminal organisation run by Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty.

Blake’s first encounter with the Snake is at a stamp auction. Sexton Blake is a keen philatelist, as is the villainous Michael Larron. At the auction Blake renews his acquaintanceship with the glamorous Mademoiselle Julie (Greta Gynt). Mademoiselle Julie seems to be in the same line of business as Sexton Blake, working sometimes as a freelancer and sometimes for the Sûreté.

The story is not exactly a masterpiece of plot construction but that matters little since it’s really just an excuse for pulp thrills and for the hero to find himself in lots of perilous situations from which there seems to be no escape. In at least one case there really would have been no excuse had Mademoiselle Julie not been on hand to rescue the great detective, a favour he is later able to repay.

There are some nice visual touches, such as the scene that awaits Blake in the gambling salon. The atmosphere is very pulpy and there’s every old-fashioned thriller cliché you could hope for, from deadly blow guns to doped cigars to concealed trap-doors.

This is very much in the mould of Edgar Wallace. Which from my point of view is certainly no bad thing.

This movie is one of six in VCI’s British Cinema Classic B Film Collection Volume 1 boxed set. The transfer is acceptable although far from pristine. The source material was obviously a TV print. These are very obscure movies so we’re lucky they’re available at all, and at a very reasonable price.

Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror is obviously a must-see for Tod Slaughter fans but anyone with a taste for outrageous pulpy fun should find plenty here to enjoy. It’s outrageous fun. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Dames Don't Care (1954)

Dames Don't Care (original title Les Femmes s'en balancent, also released as Dames Get Along) was made in 1954 and was the third of the Lemmy Caution movies. Bernard Borderie wrote and directed this film (as he did several others in the series).

Lemmy Caution was created by English novelist Peter Cheyney. The books were particularly popular in Europe and the first of the long series of French Lemmy Caution movies, Poison Ivy, appeared in 1953. The movies are on the whole better than the books.

Only one actor has ever played Lemmy Caution - American-born Eddie Constantine. Constantine had established himself as a fairly popular singer in France but the Lemmy Caution movies made him not just a movie star but a minor cultural icon.

Lemmy Caution is an FBI agent but all his cases seem to take him to Europe. It seems like he spends very little time in the United States. This case takes him to Italy.

The very clever opening sequence shows Caution making contact with another FBI agent. The case involves a very large amount of counterfeit U.S. currency which first came to the attention of the Italian authorities when the glamorous Henrietta Aymes (Nadia Gray) tried changing one of the forged notes at a bank in Rome. Henrietta’s husband Granworth committed suicide at about this time, or at least it looked like suicide at the time. When the eyewitness, a night watchman, changed his story it started to look a lot less like suicide.

Much of the action centres on the Casa Antica, a fancy bar and illegal gambling joint. Henrietta Aymes is a regular there. Lemmy is confident he’ll pick up a lead if he sticks around a place like this long enough. In the meantime there's whiskey to be drunk and poker to be played.

Henrietta Aymes is obviously a classic femme fatale but she’s not the only one. Paulette (Dominique Wilms) is femme fatale number two. And they’re both terrific sexy bad girls. Both have plausible motives for murdering Granworth Aymes. There’s a complex, twisted and dangerous web of romantic and criminal relationships involving Henrietta and her husband and Pauline and her husband.

The plot turns out to be rather intricate and it’s reasonably satisfying. Lemmy’s methods are generally not very subtle but he does have to puzzle out some actual clues this time. That still leaves plenty of time for fist-fights (some of which are pretty good). There’s also at least one decent action set-piece.

This movie is very much in the style of the classic American hardboiled private eye movies of the 40s. And it captures that flavour perfectly. There’s a leavening of humour but mostly it’s played fairly straight. The late Lemmy Caution movies, beginning with Godard’s Alphaville, may have been busily trying to deconstruct the genre but that’s definitely not the case with the early movies made between 1953 and 1963. This was a period when the French were still totally in love with American pop culture.

The settings are interesting. None of the action takes place in major cities. It all takes place in what appear to be desert settings, with stark modernist buildings seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I suspect the film-makers, having seen so many American movies set in California or in desert settings, were trying to create that same kind of atmosphere. Especially with Lemmy driving around in his big American convertible. The Casa Antica set is rather impressive. Stylistically it’s a pretty interesting movie.

If you’re the sort of person who is put off by dubbed movies you don’t have to worry about this one. The English language dubbing is excellent, and the English version includes some truly wonderful hardboiled dialogue.

Compared to Poison Ivy, made a year earlier, Dames Don't Care is a bit more polished and Eddie Constantine is now entirely comfortable in the rôle and he’s superb. Constantine’s Lemmy Caution is one of the screen’s classic wise-cracking hardboiled tough guys.

Nadia Gray and Dominique Wilms (who had also appeared in Poison Ivy) do the femme fatale thing and they both do it extremely well.

As far as I am aware the only way to get the Lemmy Caution movies is on DVD-R from Sinister Cinema. In the case of this film the image quality is quite OK. Sound quality is not so good with a fair bit of hiss but fortunately the dialogue is all perfectly understandable.

Dames Don't Care is stylish entertainment with generous helpings of both wit and action. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Thunder Road (1958)

Thunder Road was very much a personal project for Robert Mitchum. He starred in it, he produced it, he wrote the story and he even co-wrote the songs. It was released by United Artists in 1958.

Mitchum plays Luke Doolin, a Korean War veteran who makes his living running illegal whiskey. It’s a small family business but Luke is finding himself squeezed by agents of the Treasury Department on one side and big-time gangsters on the other.

The action takes place in Harlan County in Tennessee, and illegal whiskey is the main industry in the county. These are hillbillies who have been distilling moonshine, and avoiding the revenue agents, for generations. It’s not just as profitable business. It’s part of their culture.

The transporters are guys like Luke, driving specially modified cars with racing engines and 250 gallon concealed tanks for the whiskey.

Carl Kogan (James Aubuchon) is a smooth but unscrupulous operator. He aims to control the whole illegal distilling business throughout the state. He aims to turn the operation into big business. He makes the moonshiners of the valley an offer he thinks they can’t refuse but he hasn’t taken account of Luke Doolin’s bloody-mindedness and intense dislike of being pushed around.

Luke’s charisma, resourcefulness and daring has made him the de facto leader of the illegal distillers in the valley. Luke certainly has guts. The question is whether his judgment is entirely sound. He doesn’t just refuse Kogan’s offer, he goes out of his way to antagonise and humiliate him. Kogan has a reputation for ruthlessness and one might think that it would have been wiser not to push him so far. But subtlety is not Luke’s style, and he possibly figures that if he refuses Kogan’s offer then Kogan is going to try to destroy him anyway so why bother refusing him politely?

It’s clear from the start that this is a high stakes game. One whiskey runner is ambushed and killed early on. Revenue agents might be implacable enemies but they don’t do that sort of thing. It has to be Kogan. Then Luke has an encounter with a couple of hoods in a car. The encounter ends fatally for the hoods. Then things really get out of control. A Treasury agent is killed in a bungled attempt on Luke’s life. This is the one thing that everyone in Harlan County feared. If a federal agent gets killed the government tends to react in a rather extreme way. In this case they send 200 additional agents to Harlan County with orders to track down and destroy every single still.

Things are getting so grim that Luke’s Daddy decides it’s time to get out of the whiskery business, temporarily at least. Luke will make one last run and that will be it.

One of the cool things about a film noir-tinged 1958 movie is that you can’t be certain whether it’s going to have a downbeat ending or a happy ending. From the late 60s onwards movies started to become terribly predictable. You just know there’s going to be a nihilistic downbeat ending. But in 1958 there was no way to be sure which way a movie like this would go. And I’m certainly not going to tell you!

Thunder Road does have some definite claims to film noir status, and those claims rest to a large degree on Luke’s personality. Luke is the kind of guy who just cannot compromise. He’s a guy who is either going to smash his way to victory or destroy himself trying. He is wildly over-confident. He is used to winning, but now he’s facing tougher odds than ever before. He’s the kind of guy whose whole approach is likely to get him in trouble. He’s a nice guy and he’s fundamentally decent but those flaws could well be enough to make him a doomed film noir hero. He’s a man who is at least half-aware of being on a road to destruction. If Kogan doesn’t get him the Federal Government will. The smart thing to do would be to quit, but he just doesn’t know how to do that. It’s an ideal role for Mitchum, combining charisma, charm, sensitivity and fatalism.

Gene Barry (an actor I’ve always liked) plays Treasury Agent Troy Barrett. In this case Barrett doesn’t really care about Luke Doolin. It’s Carl Kogan he wants. Luke is a bit of a bad boy but Kogan is a gangster and a cold-blooded killer. Barrett’s problem is to try to persuade the moonshiners that this time he’s on their side.

Mitchum’s son James makes his film debut here as Luke’s kid brother Robin.

The illegal whiskey business isn’t just a criminal enterprise. For the people of communities like Harlan County it’s a kind of symbol. A symbol of resistance to intrusive governments. A symbol of a man’s freedom to live his life in his own way. A symbol of the right not to be a wage slave. And also a symbol of a traditional way of life. Apart from being in the illegal whiskey trade the people of Harlan County are law-abiding God-fearing folk. They just want to be left alone. But of course being left alone is not going to be an option.

Thunder Road is available on DVD in Regions 1 and 2 and there’s a U.S. Blu-Ray release as well. I caught the movie on cable TV so I can’t comment on the quality of those releases.

Thunder Road has no shortage of action. It was just about the first Hollywood move in which car chases were the main focus of the action, and those car chases are extremely well done. The film also benefits from lots of location shooting. This is a very entertaining mix of film noir and action movie, with some of the flavour of an exploitation movie as well. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mr Wong in Chinatown (1939)

Mr Wong in Chinatown was released in 1939 and was the third of the Monogram Mr Wong movies. The character had been created by American writer Hugh Wiley and appeared in twelve stories published in Colliers Magazine between 1934 and 1938. Boris Karloff played Mr Wong in the first five movies while Keye Luke played the character in the final movie. In the original stories Mr Wong is a Chinese-American. In the movies Mr Wong had spent quite a considerable time in England which allowed Karloff to play the character with an educated English accent. I’m told the stories are rather deliciously pulpy.

Mr Wong lives in San Francisco and often helps the San Francisco Police on important and difficult cases. His relations with the police are exceptionally cordial. The movie starts with a murder committed in Mr Wong’s own home.

A Chinese woman has called at Wong’s house. By the time Wong makes his way from his laboratory to the sitting room the woman is dead, killed apparently by a fiendishly ingenious Chinese sleeve gun that fires poisoned darts. The woman was obviously a person of wealth and high social class and she has left a tantalising dying clue - the words ‘Captain J’ scrawled on a card.

The woman is in fact the Princess Lin Hwa. She is visiting the United States to buy arms.

Mr Wong will need assistance from San Francisco’s Chinese community and he obtains it, from one of the tongs.

Mr Wong is working closely with his old friend Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) of the San Francisco PD. They are both also working closely with Feisty Girl Reporter Bobby Logan (Marjorie Reynolds), not by choice but because there seems to be no way to prevent her from involving herself. As Feisty Girl Reporters go she is at least not overly annoying.

Comic relief has been kept to a minimum. There’s some mild comic interplay between Bobby Logan and Captain Street but it’s very low-key and quite amusing and it even advances the plot. Given the fact that ill-advised and painfully unfunny comic relief sank a lot of otherwise promising B-movies of the 30s (including quite a few Monogram pictures) this is quite refreshing.

The plot is fairly interesting. It’s clear that the princess’s arms buying led either directly or indirectly to her murder but the script keeps us in doubt as to the exact identity of the killers. It’s also interesting that she’s buying arms in the late 30s but although China and Japan had been at war since 1937 it’s implied that the princess is acting on behalf of a local warlord and the Japanese are never mentioned. Presumably the intention was to avoid giving offence to a nation that was still at that time at peace with the United States.

Boris Karloff of course does not really look all that convincingly Chinese but for an actor of Karloff’s quality that’s a minor problem. He still manages to sell us on his performance.

What’s fascinating about the three very popular 1930s Hollywood B-movie series involving Asian detectives is that the detectives were all quite distinctive. The success of the Charlie Chan movies obviously made both the Mr Moto and Mr Wong series possible but Moto and Wong are in no sense mere Charlie Chan clones. In the original books Mr Moto was a Japanese spymaster. The films made him a detective working for an early incarnation of Interpol but it’s still clear that Moto has certain connections. And he’s much of an action hero than Charlie Chan. Mr Wong is much more upper-class than Chan. He is a man of considerable education and taste.

The acting overall is surprisingly good for a Monogram feature. Grant Withers is pretty good as tough cop Bill Street. Marjorie Reynolds gives a spirited and generally engaging performance as Bobby Logan.

After a successful career as a silent director William Nigh found himself relegated to helming B-movies for Poverty Row studios, a task he accomplished with reasonable efficiency. He directed the first five Mr Wong movies.

The production values are roughly what you expect from Monogram with a fairly limited array of sets but the picture doesn’t really look cheap or shoddy.

The Mr Wong movies are in the public domain and have had various rather questionable DVD releases. All six movies have been released in a two-disc set from VCI and it has to be said that the transfers are pretty good. In fact the transfer of this particular movie is very good.

Mr Wong in Chinatown is bright and breezy and it’s fine B-movie entertainment with Karloff impressive as always. Highly recommended.

The first movie in the Mr Wong cycle, Mr Wong, Detective, is also well worth seeing.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

I’m a great fan of Robert Siodmak’s films noirs such as Phantom Lady, and I loved his wonderfully southern gothic Son of Dracula. I remember liking The Spiral Staircase, made in 1946, and it seems like one of those movies that is worth a second look. In fact it’s worth seeing just for Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography which is, as always, stunning. The combination of Musuraca’s film noirish lighting and the sumptuous Edwardian sets (the movie is set in 1916) gives the movie a decidedly gothic feel.

The situation of two step brothers living in the shadow of their dead father, a father who despised them, plus the bed-ridden matriarch of the family (played by Ethel Barrymore) enhances the gothic sensibility. The past cannot be escaped. Professor Warren (George Brent) and Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver) are both weaklings in their own ways and they dislike each other intensely.

A series of murders has terrorised the district. The victims have all been women and all with some form of weakness or affliction. Dr Parry (Kent Smith) is naturally concerned for Helen (Dorothy McGuire) who is mute, apparently as a result of some trauma in the distant past. Dr Parry has the idea he can cure her, and he’s obviously in love with her. Dr Parry has been called in to treat old Mrs Warren, a challenge for any doctor. The old lady keeps telling Helen to leave, to get away, that she is in danger. Is the killer outside trying to get in, or is he already inside?

To be honest I don’t think most people will find the mystery to be all that difficult to penetrate. In any case I think it’s an advantage in a suspense movie to know who the bad guy is, or at least to have a very strong suspicion. It makes the audience more anxious for the heroine’s safety (and this is definitely a Woman In Peril film). Of course it all depends on whether you’re trying to make a mystery film or a suspense film. This particular film seems to be trying to be both (which is also very much true of the source novel).

The actual plot is secondary to the atmosphere that Siodmak creates, a very unhealthy atmosphere. It’s the way Siodmak tells the story that matters, and he tells it with some marvellous visual touches. At this point in time there was probably no better cinematographer in Hollywood than Nicholas Musuraca. He knows when to go over the top visually but he also knows when to build the gothic atmosphere gradually and subtly.

The very solid cast certainly helps. Dorothy McGuire does very  well in a part that obviously doesn’t allow her to speak. George Brent was always likeable and sympathetic even when, as here, he played weak or morally dubious characters. Ethel Barrymore, being a Barrymore, overacts. But being a Barrymore she does it well.

Elsa Lanchester is great fun as the good-natured but eccentric housekeeper who likes a drop or two of brandy when she can get it.

There’s a decidedly diseased ambience to the Warren household and it’s not at all difficult to imagine that the crazed killer might be a member of this household.

The Spiral Staircase was based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch and it’s a fine example of the ability of a great film-maker to take a very mediocre novel and turn it into a great movie. Overly melodramatic plotlines tend to work a lot better on film than in books and the whole “it was a dark and stormy night” thing seems a hoary old cliché on the printed page. In a movie it’s still a cliché but it can still be made to work.

Ethel Lina White was a representative of the Had I But Known school of crime fiction which is excruciating in print but can make for a very successful suspense film.

Mel Dinelli wrote the screenplay which fixes the major faults in White’s original story. Dinelli did some fine things as a writer about this time, most notably The Reckless Moment and House by the River but also Beware, My Lovely which I think is rather underrated.

The DVD release includes no extras at all, but is fairly inexpensive and the movie looks superb. If you have a taste for film noir or gothic movies you need to see this movie. The Spiral Staircase is highly recommended.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

You Can't Take It With You won both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Frank Capra in 1938.

It’s an odd film, but it’s a Capra film so you expect that.

James Stewart plays Tony Kirby, the heir to the vast Kirby banking fortune. The Kirby fortune is based on a monopoly that has been achieved by the time-honoured methods of American business - by buying enough Congressmen and Senators to ensure the the company can do what it likes. So, typically for Capra, we immediately get a political angle. This is however not really the main focus of the film.

Tony Kirby wants to marry his secretary Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur) but his parents disapprove very strongly indeed. So we have a story of love that must overcome obstacles but that’s not really the main focus of the film either.

The core of the film is the story of two very different families. The Kirby family likes money and power. That’s pretty much all they are interested in.

Alice’s family are proto-hippies. They live in the house belonging to the family patriarch, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore). Vanderhof is a wealthy retired businessman. His house is filled to the rafters with assorted relations and assorted hangers-on. Some of them work occasionally in a desultory fashion but mostly they live off old man Vanderhof. They are free spirits who believe in creativity. In other words they’re unemployable. They don’t care very much about money. So the contrast is between the Kirbys who worship money and are therefore bad and unhappy and the Sycamore clan who are satisfied with just enough to live on and are therefore virtuous and happy.

OK, so undoubtedly there’s some truth to the idea that too much concern for money is unhealthy and that people who are satisfied with less are better off but the problem is that the movie assumes that having just enough is simply a matter of finding a wealthy benefactor like Vanderhof who likes having people sponging off him.

This is where this movie crashes and burns. Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Mr Smith Goes To Washington took Capraesque idealistic heroes and forced them to confront the unpleasant nature of the real world. This confrontation proved to be fruitful and it strengthened the heroes. It also forced them to examine their own idealism and to hone it to a razor sharp edge.

You Can't Take It With You takes place in a fantasy world in which idealistic heroes are able to rely on wishful thinking to create magical answers to problems.

We’re meant to see Vanderhof’s household as a collection of loveable eccentrics who are expressing their creativity but they’re not loveable, they’re just irritating. They’re also not believable, which makes them more irritating. They’re fake. They’re feeble one-joke characters and we get bludgeoned with that one joke over and over again.

Eventually Alice decides it would be a swell idea for Tony’s folks to meet her folks. Of course the evening quickly degenerates into chaos. The movie is trying so hard to be zany and crazy and fun but it’s just too contrived. The chaos is just chaos. It isn’t entertaining chaos.

There’s a court-room scene which will bring to mind the sanity hearing scene in Mr Deeds Goes to Town and the Senate scenes in Mr Smith Goes To Washington but the equivalent scene here just doesn’t have the same impact. There’s nothing much at stake. It’s a definite deficiency in Robert Riskin’s script. This big dramatic scene amounts to nothing more than a lovers’ spat.

Jean Arthur is a definite problem. She had a very distinct screen persona. I find it to be extremely annoying. And then there’s Lionel Barrymore, Hollywood’s greatest ham, being tedious and ingratiating. Being ingratiating is the big problem with this movie in general.

This movie lacks any real bite or focus. Devoting too much attention to making money is bad but it doesn’t suggest viable alternatives apart from the juvenile self-indulgence that would eventually culminate in the vacuousness of the counter-culture.

It also lacks a genuine hero. James Stewart is OK but Tony Kirby is a nonentity. Alice isn’t a character with much substance either. Edward Arnold as his mogul father Anthony P. Kirby and Lionel Barrymore as Vanderhof are really the central characters but that leaves the film without a viable hero figure. Kirby is a walking cliché until his sudden completely inexplicable and totally unconvincing character change. Vanderhof is just so jam-packed with folksy down-home wisdom that you want to cringe.

The Columbia Tristar DVD presentation is simply awful. The sound quality is so bad that it almost makes the film unwatchable.

I am now convinced that Frank Capra could and did make some remarkable, interesting and powerful films. You Can't Take It With You is not one of them. You Can't Take It With You is a complete cinematic turkey.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Charlie Chan’s Secret (1936)

Charlie Chan’s Secret, filmed in August-September 1935 and released in January 1936, was the tenth of 20th Century-Fox’s Chan movies starring Warner Oland.

The story begins in Hawaiian waters with the sinking of the S.S. Nestor. It was believed that Alan Colby was aboard the ship. Colby had been the heir to a fortune. Seven years earlier he disappeared. He then suddenly made contact with his family, boarded the ill-fated ship and was presumed to be lost at sea.

During the time that Alan Colby had been missing his father Bernard Colby had died. Alan was the sole heir but since he was presumed dead the fortune passed to Bernard Colby’s sister Mrs Lowell. The Lowell family has been living in style on this fortune. Alan Colby’s reappearance will certainly not be welcome to the Lowells. It will also not be welcome to Professor Bowen whose psychic researches have been very generously funded by Mrs Lowell. Alan Colby is known to be an extreme sceptic when it comes to psychic phenomena and he is certain to pull the plug on these researches.

If Alan Colby is still among the living the question is whether he can stay alive. Charlie Chan has reason to believe that several attempts have already been made on the life of Colby (or on the man who claims to be Colby).

It is Mrs Lowell who has called in Charlie Chan. Charlie flies from Honolulu to the mainland to take up his investigation. It soon becomes clear that the list of people who would like Alan Colby out of the way is even longer than was first thought.

Charlie does not necessarily disbelieve entirely in the possibility of communication with the spirit world but he certainly approaches the topic with a good deal of scepticism. Especially when the psychic phenomena seem to be rather too convenient for certain people.

From the late 19th century up to around the early 1950s there was an extraordinary craze for psychic phenomena, spiritualism and associated occult beliefs. Such notions still had some slight degree of scientific respectability at that time, or at least they had not yet been definitively proven to be bogus. They also provided wonderful material for movies. Séances figure in countless movies of this period and it was inevitable that sooner or later they would make an appearance in the Charlie Chan films.

The psychic stuff is nicely combined with an ideal setting. The Colby House is honeycombed with secret passageways, and it has other hidden secrets as well.

The mystery plot is solid enough, the solution has a few amusing and clever touches and Charlie’s plan to catch the criminal is suitably bold and ingenious. One unusual element is the uneasy relationship between Inspector Morton and Chan - Chan usually gets along well with the local police when he has to work with them. Also unusual is Charlie’s readiness to draw his gun, and to use it.

The ending works well. It’s a clichéd gathering of the suspects scene but it’s not just grandstanding. Charlie knows he not only doesn’t have enough evidence to get a conviction, he also doesn’t have enough evidence to use as leverage to get a confession. So his setting up of the killer is necessary. And it’s staged with considerable style.

Quite a few actors played Charlie Chan onscreen but the two great interpreters of the rôle were unquestionably Warner Oland and Sidney Toler. Whether you prefer Oland or Toler is really a matter of personal taste. They were both terrific. Oland had perhaps a touch more warmth while Toler added a slightly but interesting edge to his performances.

The supporting performances are quite adequate by B-movie standards with Henrietta Crosman as the elderly Mrs Lowell being the standout. Herbert Mundin as her butler Baxter provides the obligatory comic relief. He isn’t funny but at least he isn’t excessively annoying. That’s not to say he isn’t annoying, it’s just that the annoyance levels are within acceptable limits for a 1930s B-feature.

Gordon Wiles had a brief and fairly obscure career as a director. He does a fairly stylish job here. He was better known as a fairly acclaimed art director which may explain why this movie is visually very impressive (with some surprisingly effective and rather cool sets). This was unfortunately his only Chan film.

20th Century-Fox really did a splendid job with the DVD releases of the Charlie Chan movies. The transfers are excellent and they came up with some pretty interesting extras. Charlie Chan’s Secret is one of five movies in the third of the DVD sets.

The numerous extras for this disc include an audio commentary and a featurette, Charlie Chan and The Rise of the Modern Detective.

Charlie Chan’s Secret is a very good entry, in fact one of the very best, in the Chan cycle. It has a strong plot, some mildly spooky atmosphere and a great deal of energy. This one is very highly recommended for B-movie fans.